News and Notes: The Full 48

by Jason Friedman Writer/Reporter

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - Consistency. Concentration. Meticulous attention to detail. All-out effort for the full 48. These are the talking points of pretty much every coach in NBA history, and it’s a safe bet that those topics come up even more frequently for those in charge of leading young teams.

That has certainly been the case this season for head coach Kevin McHale and the Rockets as the club continues its push for the playoffs while simultaneously attempting to overcome the inevitable growing pains that arise from Houston’s intoxicating yet at times maddening mix of youth and inexperience. One day might bear witness to the Rockets running an opponent right off the floor. The next, however, is just as likely to see the club succumb to the pratfalls that frequently accompany teams in their formative years.

Yet for all the ups and downs, Houston still sits smack dab in the middle of the Western Conference playoff race, currently clinging to the seventh seed and the hope derived from the knowledge that a seven-game homestand lies just ahead on the horizon. First things first, however. Before the Rockets return to the friendly confines of Toyota Center, they still have serious business to attend to on the road during a massively important back-to-back against Golden State and Phoenix.

The former surely stands out the most, given that it involves Houston’s direct competition in its postseason chase and could potentially go a long way in determining not just whether or not the Rockets make the playoffs, but also in giving Houston the upper hand in its quest to climb as high as sixth in the standings. Based on their two previous meetings this season, the matchup advantage certainly appears to lie in Houston’s favor. The Rockets memorably tied the NBA record for most made three-pointers in a single game while putting up 140 points on the Warriors in their first showdown and Houston has taken both contests by an average of exactly 20 points per game. Put simply, Golden State has had no answer for the Rockets’ dribble penetration that has created a bevy of kick-outs for wide-open threes and a veritable smorgasbord of backdoor cuts along the baseline for dunks.

But this is where that ‘consistency’ word begins to creep in. Houston’s players and coaches know all too well that those two games will mean nada the second the ball is tipped Friday night. Yes, many of the selfsame matchups will still be there to exploit. But the Warriors will also lack for nothing in the way of motivation, no differently than did Dallas which bounced back from a 33-point drubbing to defeat the Rockets three nights later.

For Houston, the consistency sought comes primarily on the defensive end where the Rockets very much remain a work in progress. Their transition defense was torched far too often in the first half against the Mavericks and there’s no question some of those issues are the inevitable result of a team still trying to find itself on that end of the floor while integrating some of the new faces now seeing playing time following the trade deadline. 

“We just can’t give up layups and easy baskets in transition,” said McHale on Thursday following the team’s practice. “(The Warriors) are going to run and they’re going to push; we’ve just got to get back. The rules on cross-matching haven’t changed in the NBA in a long time: guard the guys who’s guarding you until you can get back. That seems to be Rubik’s cube.”

But if some of the basics defensive principles still befuddle the young Rockets from time to time, there is hope to be found in the fact that Houston made definite strides on the defensive end Wednesday night as the game wore on – a trend that has manifested itself all season long for Houston. The numbers that speak to that reality are downright jarring, in fact: The Rockets have hemorrhaged points in the first quarter this season, compiling a defensive rating of 108.2, a figure that would rank Houston 28th in the NBA if extrapolated over the course of the entire year. The Rockets’ respective defensive ratings for the next three quarters, however: 103.6, 103.4 and 103.8 – numbers that represent something much closer to the NBA average.

“When it’s time to play defense, we usually start locking down in the fourth quarter,” admits Rockets assistant coach Kelvin Sampson. “We’re a good fourth quarter defensive team but the only thing I scratch my head about is our first quarter defense. Guys are trying to see if their shot’s on, getting a feel for the rims, getting a feel for the game, getting a feel for where they’re getting their shots from instead of focusing on the defensive end of court, but I think that comes with experience and maturity.

“The stats don’t show it but this team is getting better defensively. I watched them today and the things we’re working on, and their attitude is good, they’re working hard, but it’s just going to take time with a young group.

“I really look forward to next September and October when we get back because we’re going to be so far ahead of where are now. The focus so much of this season back in September, October, November was on offense because we had to learn a new system and we wanted to play fast and we wanted to play with pace and we just kind of eased into our defense. But I think we’re getting better as we go.”

With just 20 games left in the season, any sort of significant gains made on the defensive end would be a huge boon for Houston given the already explosive nature of its offense. Consistency, as always, will be key and is a safe bet to continue as a frequent talking point. Because the truth seems clear enough: if the Rockets can find a way to start games on the defensive end the way they finish them, a return to the playoffs figures to be their reward.

And 1s: It’s been three games since Jeremy Lin has played in the fourth quarter; a reality borne of his spectacular play Sunday against Dallas that helped put the game so far out of reach that his presence was not required in the final frame, Patrick Beverley’s outstanding fourth quarter performance against Orlando that proved instrumental to Houston’s victory there, and Kevin McHale’s search for a fourth quarter spark in the Dallas defeat that led to Beverley again manning the point for Houston in the final period as the Rockets rallied before ultimately falling short. When asked for his feelings on the matter, Lin hammered home the point he has made all season with both his actions and words: his competitive fire burns as hot as ever, but nothing matters more to him than does team success.  

“Every player understands it’s just a matter of riding the hot hand,” Lin said. “For any athlete, it’s just a matter of not getting too high or not getting too low. I feel like, in the time that I’m out there, I’m playing my brand of basketball so I’m happy about that and whatever time I get I just have to keep playing the way I play. At this point, we’re making this playoff push and we’re really trying to get these wins, so whatever the coaches decide, it is what it is.

“It’s hard for any athlete to sit there when it’s winning time and it’s when it matters. But it’s not about individual egos right now. Obviously everyone wants to be out there. One through fifteen everyone wants to be out there. But that’s just not the way it works. It’s just buying into the team. And we really are a team and really do enjoy being around each other and that makes it easy to sacrifice for each other. For us, we’re all about trying to get that win.”


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